by Brant Mewborn
GEMINI'S MADELINE KAHN IS REALLY A LIBRA WHO HAS TROUBLE KEEPING HER LIFE BALANCED
For nearly a decade, Madeline Kahn has created a virtual Kahn-stellation of classic comic characters for the movies, and a lot of Kahn-fusion for her audience and herself. Outrageous, larger-than-life roles like Trixie Delight, the dizzy tart after Ryan O'Neal's heart in Paper Moon, and Lili von Shtupp, the luscious, lisping dance-hall queen in Blazing Saddles, earned Kahn two Oscar nominations, a bankable position as one of Hollywood's hottest comediennes, and something of an ongoing identity crisis. "I'm actually pretty ordinary," Kahn says plaintively, "but people always expect me to be funny or campy.
"I feel changed every time I do a role," she explains. "It's like going on a trip, and, well, sometimes you get a little bit lost. I think it's partly due to certain neurotic patterns that I have, but often it is hard to separate yourself from the roles you've been asked to do. It's getting easier though, because I'm consciously working on it."
When Kahn struts and frets across the big screen in her latest film, Happy Birthday, Gemini, Richard (Outrageous) Benner's cinematic adaption of Albert Innaurato's Broadway hit, Gemini, moviegoers still won't get to see the real "ordinary" Madeline Kahn. But as Bunny, the sassy but soulful, bosomy blonde bombshell, Kahn masterfully manhandles and mothers both cast and audience with her most sensational -- and most sensitive -- performance to date.
This story of a young boy's sexual identity crisis and its effect on his family and neighbors presents a parallel situation that Kahn is well-prepared to meet. "I monitor myself to a certain extent," says Kahn. "I am very conscious of what I say and what I don't say. But Bunny's the kind of person who doesn't censor herself at all. Something comes into her mind, she says it, and she doesn't worry about it. For me to play someone who is uninhibited is fun. It's a release."
Out of the limelight, Kahn is surprisingly reserved and cautious, her serious demeanor contrasting with the more familiar kooky, spaced-out persona she wears on TV talk shows. Her conversation is sober, guarded, almost adamantly devoid of wisecracks, yet subtly tinged with sarcasm. "I'd make a perfect doctor or teacher. I could have been either," she remarks with a straight face, and as off-center as it sounds, you believe her.
Before the eventual critical acclaim she garnered in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? -- nearly stealing the picture literally from under Barbra Streisand's nose -- Kahn experienced her first major mix-up between her own self-image and that of her character. Buried beneath the wigs and costumes of the hilariously frumpy, painfully priggish Eunice Burns, "I felt I was being treated as though I really were like Eunice," she says. "Then I started looking at myself that way. Thinking that maybe I really was unattractive like her and that was why they'd asked me to play the part. It was tormenting for me. I was very upset."
Running back to the New York stage, Kahn managed to salvage a Tony Award nomination for her dramatic go-go dancer in Boom Boom Room at Lincoln Center. Then her movie career took off with high-flying hits like Paper Moon (1973), Blazing Saddles ('74), Young Frankenstein ('74), Cheap Detective ('78), and High Anxiety ('78), which eclipsed the bombs like Won Ton Ton, not to mention her getting maimed by Lucille Ball, who sabotaged Kahn's contract to play Agnes Gooch in Mame, the movie -- reportedly because Ball thought the younger comedienne was too sexy for the role.
Madeline's childhood dream of playing the leading lady in a Broadway musical was later reawakened by overtures from the producers and creators of On the Twentieth Century. But though she accepted the starring role and opened to critical raves, what was supposed to have been her dream come true turned into a nightmare. "I was courted for a year and given the impression that they wanted me and no one but me. But almost immediately it became very difficult for me to present ideas. Once the show opened I felt decidedly unappreciated by the producers. So it ended with them wanting me to leave and me wanting to leave: There was a definite lack of communication; I still don't know exactly what happened."
Despite the bumpy theatrical rides, Madeline the trouper still doesn't rule out returning to Broadway some day if the right property comes along. For now, though, she's forsaken Broadway hoofing for cinema spoofing. In addition to the current Happy Birthday, Gemini, she has already made a cameo appearance with Dudley Moore in Wholly Moses, a religious spoof due in June, and finished playing the First Lady in Buck Henry's First Family, a political spoof due at Christmas. As for future plans to work with the two directors of her biggest cinematic successes, Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich, Kahn has very disparate views. She is reuniting with Brooks in June to shoot his next satirical opus, The History of the World, Part 1. "I love Mel," she coos. "I mean, I'm like the female in his films. I think I lucked out with him. He's such a great, great guy. But I don't feel that way about Peter. I don't know what to say about him really. It got very confusing working with him when he and Cybill [Shepherd] were together. They were playing out some kind of drama between the two of them and it was ludicrous," she says, referring to her disastrous last Bogdanovich venture, At Long Last Love.
Off-screen, Kahn works hard to avoid ludicrous situations and maintain a balanced perspective on life. She's a Libra, the astrological sign of the balance. Her everyday balancing act goes something like this: She goes to movies, "not private screenings. I like to go to moviehouses like a normal person." She goes to concerts, "both classical and rock-and-roll." She reads books. "I read only truth. I get fiction and non-fiction mixed up. Non-fiction is truth, right? I just finished Norman Cousins's The Anatomy of an Illness." She sees friends. "My friends are very important to me. About half are in show business. My boyfriend is a civilian -- and he's a doctor but you would never know it. He doesn't look like a doctor except, of course, when he's at work and I've never seen him at work."
Kahn -- who was raised from childhood by her mother in Manhattan after her parents were divorced -- is wary of romantic relationships. "I've never been married and I've never lived with anyone where one of us gave up our residence," says the resident of a sumptuous Park Avenue co-op. "For me, living with someone would be a big move. I've always been independent -- capable of supporting myself, capable of spending time alone, capable of getting around in the world by myself. It would be very threatening for me to have to share my life totally with someone. At this point, it's just out of the question. Ten years ago, I would have seemed like a sick woman, like a neurotic to have said that, right? But really, it is threatening to me because it might sidetrack me from my career, sidetrack me from being myself."
Having a career which requires that she not be herself may be the contradictory catalyst of Madeline's identity crises, but the lady is shrewd enough to realize that it is also the essence of her craft -- and her success. "If I weren't an actress, I'd probably have a small specialty type of business where I'd make rare, strange, personal objects of some kind. That's what I like about making movies -- they are, in fact, products."
Besides, Madeline says, she is "not passive" but is patient and confident that "one lucky day, I'll get to play an ordinary person. I've never been the ingenue type, so I've always felt that the so-called serious roles would happen for me later, that I'd make the best use of my naturalistic acting abilities when I became an older, more mature woman." The handsome 37-year-old actress suddenly laughs. "And I'm getting there."